Doing it by the
B'midbar (Numbers 1:1 - 4:20)
In the second year after the exodus from Egypt, God spoke to Moses in the wilderness in the
Tent of Meeting, telling him to take a census of the whole Israelite community according to its ancestral clans,
listing the names of every male. Moses and Aaron were to record all men over the age of twenty who were able to
bear arms. They should also select one chieftain from each tribe to help them. With the help of the chieftains,
Moses and Aaron conducted this census.
The number of all those in Israel who were able to bear arms came to
However, the Levites were not recorded among these because God had told Moses that on no
account should the tribe of Levi be enrolled to bear arms or be counted in the census. The Levites were to be
put in charge of the Tabernacle and everything that pertained to it; they were to carry the Tabernacle and tend
it and they were to make their camp around the Tabernacle. All responsibility for the Tabernacle was in the
hands of the Levites: any outsider who trespassed was to be put to death. Other tribes were to camp in their own
areas; only the Levites were permitted to camp around the Tabernacle.
The Israelites did as they were commanded. God made it clear to Moses how and where each tribe
was to camp around its own standards, in relation to the Tent of Meeting, and to one another. So the Israelites
camped in clans by their standards and marched clan by clan.
Aaron’s sons were Nadab, the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. These were the
anointed priests. But God killed Nadab and Abihu when they offered alien fire in the wilderness. So Eleazar and
Ithamar served as priests during Aaron’s lifetime.
God spoke to Moses, telling him to promote the tribe of Levi to help Aaron and his sons to
attend to priestly duties. They were to perform duties for them and for the whole community before the Tent of
Meeting, doing the work of the Tabernacle. Aaron and his sons were to be in charge of the
God announced to Moses that he would take the Levites in place of all the first-born of
Israel. He reminded Moses that every first-born belonged to him since the time at which he had killed every
first-born in Egypt. He told Moses that at that time he had consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and
beast, as belonging to him, the Lord.
God told Moses to record every male among the Levites from the age of one month up. At that
time, the number came to 22,000. God told Moses that the male Levites were to stand in the place of all the
first-born males of Israel and the first-born of their cattle. Because there were 273 more first-born than
Levite males, the excess was paid in money to Aaron and his sons, for the priestly
God then told Moses and Aaron to choose some of the Kohathites, a clan among the Levites, to
take responsibility for the most sacred objects in the Tent of Meeting. God laid down detailed procedures for
the duties of Aaron and his sons in taking down the Tent of Meeting at the breaking of camp. When Aaron and his
sons had finished covering the sacred objects then the Kohathites were to come and lift them. If anyone but
Aaron and his sons were to come in direct contact with the sacred objects before they were covered, those people
God told Moses and Aaron not to let the Kohathite clans be cut off from the other Levites.
They were to be protected from direct contact with the sacred objects, even though had special duties in
carrying them. They were nevertheless still to be part of the other Levites.
on the 34th parsha (portion) of the Torah. The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
No wonder the English translation of the name of this fourth book of the Torah is Numbers. Whoever wrote this
one was obsessed with numbers and counting.
Have you considered that all this is about fairness? It is to do with the duties that different people have in
this society. Remember, these people were wandering in the desert. They had to make sure that they could protect
themselves from attack and protect and treasure their sacred symbols. They had to be organised for survival. Not
everyone could do everything.
Fairness? Hmmm. Sorry to take on a soft target, but it’s irresistible. Women? Were they people? They didn’t get
counted in the census. Surely that’s not fair, by any account?
Well, I knew you were going to say that. They were not counted among those to bear arms. Do you think that’s
unfair? Do you think women should have to bear arms? Don’t they have other duties – bearing and nurturing
children, surely a very onerous, full-time activity?
There are cultures in which women warriors are well-known and respected. I’d like to think that people have some
choice as to what they do. This system in which your role is determined by your caste is not one that I consider
to be very fair. What about people who want to be soldiers, and people who want to be priests, and people who
don’t want to be either?
always, you miss the point that in order to understand the bible, you need to understand the context in which
these rules were laid down. This was a people wandering in the desert. Moses was their leader. By enforcing
God’s laws, he ensured the Israelites’ physical and spiritual survival. The priority was not personal choice,
but community survival. They fought for their unity and common cause. They defended their sacred objects because
they were defending their relationship with God. Don’t you understand that these are not rules for rules’ sake?
Nevertheless, they needed to be presented to the people in a way that made sense to them. Moses and Aaron did it
by the numbers.
It’s absurd that the first-born has such an important role in this culture. We can’t choose our birth-order. Why
does it have to determine everything that follows? Does it mean that first-born is always best? Why don’t women
even count? And by the way, why should women not take care of the
sacred objects? Is there something dirty or deficient about women which rules them out?
Context, Sigmund, context. Women were bearing and nurturing children. That is quite possibly the chief
responsibility in the survival of a people. Why should they be given even more work?
That seems utter nonsense to me. I think that the attitude towards women that is expressed in these writings
cannot be justified as fair.
Well, it depends what you mean by fair. They were taken care of and their survival guaranteed. They were a
nomadic people in the desert. Women were not as strong as men and were protected from fighting or being taken as
spoils of war.
am entirely unpersuaded by these justifications. And what worries me is that today, when we are not a nomadic
people, and physical strength is not essential to survival, and women can control the extent of their
childbearing and nurturing, they are still not permitted to touch sacred objects and to be priests or to assist
priests. They have no role in the spiritual life of the community. And yet, it seems that these days both women
and Levites can bear arms. So why is it that some laws are abandoned in different contexts, and others are not?
It seems to me that women do not have the same opportunities as men in this community, even
MS: Sigmund, women are different from men. It doesn’t mean they are lesser.
SAS: Interestingly though, they don’t get to participate in the making of the
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish History, however, is
based in fact, and on historical records.
you’d like to know more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
The Establishment of Modern
had waged the Sinai and Palestine Campaign against the Ottoman Empire during WW1 and had occupied Palestine.
After WW1, the British held a mandate for Palestine, agreed to by the League of Nations. Subsequent to the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, in 1916, the British,
expecting together with France to divide up much of the Ottoman Empire between them, had made certain promises
regarding the land they expected to rule. Through T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) Britain had promised
independence for a united Arab country covering most of the Arab Middle East, in exchange for their support of
the British; the Balfour Declaration of 1917 saw Britain backing
the idea of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Prior to this, as a reward for their
support, the British had guaranteed the Hashemite family control of most land
in the region.
the Peel Commission proposed a portioning of Palestine into autonomous Jewish and Arab regions with Britain
maintaining overall jurisdiction.
wake of the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, the White Paper of 1939 restricted Jewish immigration to 75,000 over
five years and committed Britain to establishing an independent Palestine under Arab majority rule.
Labour Party won power in Britain after WW2, it undertook to rescind the White Paper and create a Jewish state
in Palestine. It did not follow through on this undertaking.
in Palestine were mounting, and the settlers and Arab populations were becoming more aggressive towards one
another. A Jewish resistance movement that unified groups like the
Haganah, Lehi and
Irgun made maintaining order even more difficult for the
Britain – exasperated by Israeli-Arab tensions – announced its decision to withdraw from
formulated Resolution 181 by which it proposed to partition Palestine and place Jerusalem under UN jurisdiction.
The plan met with general Jewish approval and Arab disapproval.
November 29, 1947, the plan was passed by the UN General Assembly. The partition of Palestine was to take effect
from the day of British withdrawal – 15 May 1948. Britain, however, said the plan was unworkable and refused to
implement it. Nevertheless, the Israeli Declaration of Independence was made on 14 May 1948. It stated that the
State of Israel had been established in parts of the British Mandate for
vigorous debate about whether the word “God” should appear in the last section of the declaration. Eventually,
as a compromise between religious Jews and secularists, the term “Rock of Israel” was used – a term that could
refer to God or to Eretz Israel. No specific borders were identified in the proclamation since, Ben-Gurion
argued, there was no point in committing to the UN partition blueprint when the Arabs opposed
ceremony to proclaim independence was held, in relative secret, at 4 p.m. on 14 May 1948 and was presided over
by David Ben-Gurion, who became prime minister that day. The 250 guests sang Hatikvah, shortly to be adopted as the national anthem. 24 signatories
ratified the declaration.
President Truman immediately recognised the State of Israel, although official US recognition came only on 31
January 1949, two days after Britain’s recognition of the state. Among the first countries to recognise Israel
officially were the Soviet Union, Poland and South Africa.
been Civil War in Palestine between the Jewish settlers and the local Palestinians from 1947-1948 and the
declaration of independence led to an invasion of troops from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. This led
to the phase of conflict known as the Arab-Israeli War (or Israeli War of Independence). This stop-start
conflict ended on 24 July 1949 with the signing of an armistice with Syria. By this point, Israel had secured
its independence and increased its land by 50% compared with the UN partition
Jews, or 1% of the population, died in the War of Independence.
State of Israel faced the problem of absorbing a million European refugees, survivors of the Holocaust, and a
further million Sephardic Jews who had been driven out of Arab countries. The task of securing Israel’s gains
fell to the Israel Defence Forces, the Mossad (the foreign intelligence service) and Shin Beit (domestic
establishment of modern-day Israel is celebrated annually on Yom
Ha’atzmaut, a national holiday. On 15 May every year, Palestinians commemorate the event as Nakba Day
follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and Ben.
The British sound like they were a bit ambivalent during these terrible birth pangs. They changed their position
often and were not at all consistent in the message that they gave the inhabitants of
Well, there were so many different issues: spoils of war, empire, keeping the Arabs sweet, being fair to the
Jews, internal domestic politics in Britain. And the Jews themselves were pretty polarised. The Irgun believed
in using organised violence and other guerrilla activities. Remember, they bombed the King David Hotel because
of the presence of British military there. Lehi conducted political assassination and other acts of
violence. Th eHagana saw itself as a defence force, and in fact, on
occasion, turned in members of Lehi to the British.
I think the story of Israel’s birth is inspiring. I applaud Ben-Gurion for having the courage to proclaim
Israel’s independence and for being prepared to defend it against the inevitable Palestinian Arab backlash and
invasion by neighbouring Arab states.
DAD: The costs were huge – 6,000
died to protect the new state.
CHAYA: One can understand why
they made the sacrifice. We have studied how Jews were subjected to terrible persecution during the centuries.
Having a land of our own gave us a place of refuge, a place of pride and a place in which to reforge our
identity as a people.
And what about the Palestinians? They did live there, after all.
They were given many opportunities to participate in finding a solution. They chose to fight
We will talk more about this. Right now, we are talking about the Jews in Israel.
This Third Jewish Commonwealth, as it was called, brought us back – full circle – to our geographical and
spiritual roots. Could anything have been more wonderful and exciting?
Yes, the occupation of a homeland without the hatred of surrounding peoples and the constant threat of losing
the land, or sections thereof.
Well, there have been efforts to negotiate. But clearly they have not been satisfactory to either side. Remember
when Ehud Barak offered the possibility of a Palestinian state in Gaza, 92% of the West Bank and a capital in
East Jerusalem and, the PLO under Arafat would not accept the terms of the offer. The Oslo Accords of 1993
promised much but have delivered nothing substantial.
The Palestinians have chosen to play an all-or-nothing game about land. Some Israeli political parties feel the
same way. It’s not going to lead to a solution. Back in 1947 the
Palestinians rejected UN Resolution 181. The war of 1948-9 profited them nothing, with Israel winning land
beyond the UN’s projected division. There have been subsequent conflicts, Intifadas and wars, but 60 years on
Israel is still standing, and looking strong and viable.
It depends which Arabs you’re talking about and what each entity’s agenda was – you can’t say there’s an “Arab”
position on the disputed territories when there are different groupings and different countries
CHAYA: Let’s talk specifically
about the Palestinians. Relatively few Jews would begrudge them a settlement of sorts, but a settlement is not
the same as handing over the whole territory. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and it has
powerful allies. The Palestinians are politically fragmented between Hamas and Fatah, a division that smacks of
political frustration and strategic confusion.
Israel, meanwhile, remains united and strong. It has won the PR battle as well as the military
United? The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 showed Israel was still riven by hatreds and suspicions.
There remain hardcore elements that will resist future deals and the ceding of land in Gaza and the West
Everyone in Israel/Palestine seems happier when there are no deals on the table!
Of course! Change is fearful. No matter how unsustainable the situation is in the long-term, nobody there is in
a hurry to embrace a land-sharing future.
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· Let’s go to the circus tomorrow if – God willing – we’re alive, and if not let’s go
· Where love is, no room is too small.
· If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a
German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say
that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.
· The scholar does not see that borscht is red.
· The truly wise man is as liberal with his wisdom as clouds are with their rains.
(Moses Ibn Ezra, Shirat Israel)
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around them.
Dr. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin was a Jewish-American writer who was born in Germany. She
obtained a PhD in Semitics, philosophy and archaeology in 1931, and immigrated to the USA with her husband,
Aaron, in the same year. They co-founded the School of the Jewish Woman in New York in 1933. In 1939 she
founded the Jewish Spectator, a quarterly magazine she edited for
50 years. She also served as national co-chair of education for the Zionist Organization of America. She
lectured at New York University and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She published 12 books including What Every Jewish Woman Should Know (1949).